Kelley McCrae, Brian Alexander, I am Samson, Amelia Romano, Daniel Dorman

Goes Down Easy

The term "easy listening" is often slapped onto music so innocuous that it's little more than aural wallpaper. In this column I'd like to be more literal: music that's smooth and easy on the ears.

Kelley McRae is often called an Americana artist—perhaps because her music isn't quite folk and isn't quite country, but is too much of each to get called bluegrass. On her latest, The Wayside, you'll hear echoes of Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, and Lucinda Williams. Many of the songs come from time on the road. McRae is Mississippi born, but lived in Brooklyn for a while, until she and her husband, dobro/guitar artist Matt Castelein, traded their apartment keys for that of a van, their new home for a prolonged stretch. McRae's songs reflect some of the places, emotions, and deep musings that took place along the way. Hers are the small gems that come from fatigue, wonder, and long silences. A personal favorite is "Land of the Noonday Sun" in which she sings, "Time goes by like a dream/No matter how hard you run/Some things are better left unsaid/Some things are better left undone." Similar sentiments emerge in the title track—a road song that hints of being about something deeper: "And when my time comes to say goodbye/When the long day turn to night/I hope I've held close to the love that abides/And left the rest for/For the wayside." The album is filled with little insights such as this, another emerging in "If You Need Me" with its sleepy feel and the line "Anything worth holding onto is worth letting go." There is outstanding dobro, guitar, and harmony work by Castelein throughout, and Jon Andersen contributes tasteful, often understated, pedal steel. All eleven tracks are winners, but others that stayed with me were "Red Dirt Road," which is set in Oklahoma and invokes snippets of Woody Guthrie verse; the return-of-the-prodigal "A Long Time," and "Rare Bird," which seems to be about a person who flew too high when young and is looking toward home to roost.★★★★

 Brian Alexander has a soothing light tenor voice. His EP, Mountain (NoiseTrade), is five songs in the folk and folk rock vein. He grew up in Michigan, and the album's titular peak is a hill outside of his current Nashville home, but you can be excused if you think of him as a Colorado lad, as his songs deal more with the Rockies and points westward. He counts John Denver among his influences and we hear touches of that in his songs. "Telluride," for instance, deals with rogues as well as those who simply love high altitudes, but both are wrapped into a bright song with a refrain that will stay with you. The arrangement is the "western" part of the country formula: some pedal steel, steady percussion, some fiddle, and a cool bass riff. That formula repeats on the title track, with its hopeful message of feeling as strong‑and sometimes as lonely—as a mountain. "Night" is another winner—one that starts as if it will be a fragile acoustic offering, evolves into a bigger production with electric guitar and a hooky melody. Alexander is another promising new talent. Watch for him, but don't confuse him with the pop musician of the same name. ★★★ ½

I am Samson is the brother-sister collaboration between former Seattle (now Washington, DC) residents Josh and Anna Tigges. They call their new project, Humanity in Earth Tones, "songs for beautiful people," by which they mean the late 60s/early 70s version of beautiful—those holding human- and earth-centered values. They note that Samson means "bright sun" in Hebrew and that they are dedicated to "bringing truth and light to the world." It is an album in two parts, the first looking at what it means to be human and the second thinking of the "sounds and symbols" all humans encounter in the world. The album has a wholesome and hopeful vibe and the duo mesh well together. "Sorry Not Sorry" begins with Josh's call and Anna's response, transitions to a duet, and then ups the energy. "Are You Love" spotlights Anna's fragile vocals and emotional piano; "Sunflower" came from a dream of a woman with blooms sprouting from her head. A little New Age-like? Perhaps in sentiment, though the music is more consoling. One downside—though both have pleasant voices, neither has a clear one, so it's often hard to make out lyrics. Maybe a little less atmosphere and more articulation is in order. ★★★

Who can resist a striking woman in a blue dress and a blue concert harp? Amelia Romano takes that blue harp to intriguing places on New Perspectives. We seldom associate the harp with jazz, which is Romano's forte—mostly of the Latin variety, with some gypsy, experimental, and world music influences tossed in. She also likes to bring her personal experiences to the table. "Crazy Day" comes from her time in South Africa, here she lived in both the Townships and in Cape Town—studies in contrast if ever there were any. She uses jangly higher notes to suggest shaky stability and then anchors the piece with sturdy bass notes. The very next piece is about climate change, but is rendered in ways evocative of Tin Pan Alley, with her harp almost piano-like. There are also more conventional pieces—a harp turn on "Besame Mucho," a bolero penned by the late concert pianist/lyricist Consuelo Velázquez; "Baroque Flamenco," which despites its title, is of recent vintage; and a for-real vintage "I'd Rather Go Blind," a song popularized and co-written by Etta James. It's one of five pieces on which Romano also sings. She does a credible job, as long as you push James out of your mind, and she wisely gives it a different feel. Romano, a Bay Area native, enhances Latin tracks with the percussion of John Mellinger and Jackie Rago. On the title cut, though, she veers onto new turf by exploring ways in which the electric harp can move between melody and percussion. That works, as does just about everything else on the album. I will leave it to aficionados to judge whether Romano has a jazz voice, but I give thumbs-up to the harping. ★★★ ½ 

Live from Sean's Room is about as homespun as you can get. This debut EP from Toronto-based Daniel Dorman was done with a single mic, a single track, and a single take. The songs have that slightly hollow feel you get from recording in an actual room rather than a soundproof studio. Dorman plays spirited guitar and has a mid-range tenor voice that's strong and can reach to falsetto. His songs are personal and reflect his undergraduate studies in theology and English. "ABetter Man" is wistful—as it should be for a man regretting his numerous sins. Ironically, "A Sad Song" is brighter in tone, if not theme, and "New Orleans," though in no way Cajun, has jauntier feel. As we hear in "She is Goodness," though, Dorman is a young artist prone to being over earnest. The guitar tempos are quite similar on all five tracks. This is music naked to the bone—raw and spare. ★★ ½      

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